Before Burnout developer Criterion came along, the Need for Speed franchise was rapidly declining, and had become little more than a chance for Fast and the Furious fans to live out their daydreams. Fast forward a few years and Criterion has had a large hand in saving the franchise, thanks to some tender loving care and a substantial dose of Burnout inspired features.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted is Criterion’s second game in the franchise, and builds on the excellent Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit by attacking with the same formula as the previous games: classic arcade handling, thrilling joyrides and plenty of cars to find, billboards to smash and records to beat.
Whether that is enough is another story altogether – Need for Speed: Most Wanted arrives just a week after Forza Horizon touched down with a V12 roar and parked itself in our disc drives, and Criterion will have its work cut out competing with Playground Games’ masterpiece.
As you can imagine, there’s a simple plot to Need of Speed: Most Wanted. You’re a racer in Freehaven, the self-proclaimed home of illegal street racing, and you’re looking to make your way to the top of the tree. The top 10 street racers of Freehaven are known as the ‘Most Wanted’ - 10 racers who continually flaunt the law and get away with it, rumbling around the virtual environment in a variety of growling supercars.
Becoming the top dog in Freehaven requires the earning of many experience points, thankfully something that comes with practically everything you do, from winning races to finding new cars. At various XP thresholds you can challenge one of the Most Wanted, for a place among the elite and the chance to shut them down (i.e. ram them into a wall) and win their car off them. And, that’s really it.
On a graphical front, for the most part Need for Speed: Most Wanted impresses. Freehaven looks fantastic, with the urban sprawl of the inner city accompanied by forested country-side as you wind your way around the environment. Dynamic lighting really is a double-edged sword though. Buildings look fantastic as the sun hits them, but if you come over the hill into a bit of solar-flare, everything looks a bit blurry, like your driver’s contact lenses just fell out.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted also suffers from considerable frame-rate issues. Hit wanted level five or six and a swarm of angry police cars can cause a significant and sudden drop in frame rate, and we’ve noticed occasional points where the game will seemingly drop a number of frames, suddenly jolting you forward (or often, into an oncoming truck). Whether these issues are present on PS3 or PC we couldn’t say for sure, this review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
If you’ve played Criterion’s preceding games, you’ll immediately recognise that Need for Speed: Most Wanted builds on the foundations of past releases. The first is Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit - Criterion’s first bite at the Need for Speed apple, which introduced the friend-tracking autolog system that Most Wanted uses so well to monitor your friends and their records. The second is Burnout Paradise, Criterion’s magnum opus that really proved that an open world competitive driving game could be done well.
The combination of these two ideas already makes for a fantastic game. The crux involves racing, obviously but Need for Speed: Most Wanted is about racing dirty, and no trick is too filthy. If you’re struggling to get past an opponent, a quick shunt can send them hurtling into a wall, or even another car, giving you a bit of a lead and a bit of extra experience into the bargain.
The basic gameplay in Need for Speed: Most Wanted is simple, but fun and satisfying in equal measure. Don’t get us wrong, this is obviously a recipe for success, but Most Wanted’s single player could be so much better.